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More than a game: Running taught Peter Cooke to finish what he started

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 6:42 a.m. MDT

Sports and military service showed Peter Cooke the value of personal commitment, even when the going is tough.   (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Sports and military service showed Peter Cooke the value of personal commitment, even when the going is tough. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of weekly stories that examine the influence participating in youth and high school sports had on the lives of successful people.

SALT LAKE CITY — When Peter Cooke's children are discouraged, he summons something he learned during his last race as a high school cross country runner.

"I always tell them, 'You can't beat a Cooke!' " said the retired two-star U.S. Army major general and democratic candidate for governor. "It really means don't give up."

When he was in high school in Frankfurt, Germany, it was the practice to run the high school cross country meets during the halftime of football games.

"Then the runners would have an audience," said the father of five with a grin. "It got to a point in the race where in this really important meet, I had a severe Charlie horse. I had to stop."

Peter Cooke poses for a photo in his office in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2012.  (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Peter Cooke poses for a photo in his office in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

He watched other runners pass him by as he tried to massage his muscle enough that he could finish the race.

"Eventually I got to a point where I could finish the run," he said. "I was sort of hobbling along, and then I turned the corner to enter the arena. It had been long enough that the game had started up again, but when they saw me coming the announcer said over the loud speaker, 'Here comes Pete Cooke; he didn't give up!' The crowd on both sides stood up and they stopped the game and cheered me to the finish. It was kind of an emotional moment."

He said that experience taught him a lesson that sustains him even in the darkest of times.

"It gave me that philosophy of never giving up," he said. "You can't be beat, if you don't give up. That was a huge moment. I was so proud, even though I was the last one. … It was a lesson I'll never forget."

Peter Cooke poses for a photo in his office in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2012.  (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Peter Cooke poses for a photo in his office in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 29, 2012. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Cooke loved individual sports — track, cross country and even mountain climbing — when he was young. His love of running continued into his adult life, and he said it's something that's played an integral role in his success as an officer in the military, a father and now as a candidate for governor.

"My father was a semi-pro football player," said Cooke, whose father was a Pan Am pilot so the family lived all over the world. "I just always liked running. I was there; I wasn't good; I wasn't an Olympian. For me, it was about participation in the sport. Living in Europe, we were able to travel everywhere. I did our state championship in Berlin at the Olympic Stadium. … It was the same place Jesse Owens won gold. Now that I look back at it, it was pretty amazing stuff."

After graduating in 1967, he headed to Utah State University because they have the best "forestry school in the country." He continued running because he found it offered him both peace and competition.

"What I like about running is that it really allowed me to think through things," he said. "There is a real peacefulness to it. I used to have my own little internal competitions."

He joined the Army ROTC at the height of the Vietnam War because he wanted to serve his country and help finance his education. Meanwhile, he continued running and also took up cycling and swimming.

"I have a lot of mentors, but I think the biggest is Jack Kennedy," he said referring to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "I've really strived my whole life to be like him. I liked his philosophy of helping people."

Cooke said the military offered him the chance to serve while continuing to challenge him mentally and physically. Every year, soldiers are required to pass a physical fitness test, and if they can't pass, they may end up not being able to stay in the military.

Physical fitness isn't a luxury or a hobby for soldiers.

"When you go into combat, you depend on the team, not the individual," he said. "The military takes this interesting element of being physically strong, and then they put you through exercise after exercise. They put you out in the field 24 to 72 hours on mission, and they test not only what kind of shape you're in but what kind of leader you are. … The whole unit has to learn to be a team because my life could depend on how well you're in shape."

Cooke's running ability served him well, as he was always fast and in shape. But he said one particular circumstance at Fort Lewis provided him another life lesson he's never forgotten. His superior officers told the young soldiers that they'd only pass the physical fitness test if everyone in the unit passed.

"The score wasn't done by individual scores, it was determined by getting everybody across the line," he said. "It took an individual sport and turned it into a team accomplishment. I've never forgotten that."

Cooke said he's always encouraged his children to play sports because the success that comes from competing gives a person such confidence.

"At our house it's a big discussion," he said laughing. "It's interesting because we've focused on lifetime sports. Our kids play tennis, they're great swimmers, bikers, skiers, and I love to sail."

He doesn't often think of what his life would have been like, or how he would have turned out, if he'd never been an athlete.

"I think I would have lost a lot of character-building opportunities," he said. "For me, it's interesting how I had to keep up with the discipline I learned. In my world of PT tests and the military world, I understood that personal commitment, and I didn't have to depend on others to push me. I already had that whole individual workout mentality."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com twitter: adonsports

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